March 2004

Katie Pannarale Fries

bookslut with baby

Old Stories, New Thoughts

One of the kind of cool fringe benefits of being a parent is the opportunity to revisit books I might never have been inspired to pick up again, unless I were to become an elementary school teacher. It’s interesting to read these books -- most remembered from my own childhood -- through the eyes of an adult, and discover new meanings and metaphors I missed the first time around. It is also interesting to see my reaction to the stories themselves now that I’m a parent.

Matthew received many books for Christmas, but I’m thinking about four in particular because they are what I consider to have earned classic (or, near classic) status in the children’s literature canon and because I was introduced to them before I became a parent, when I was just me, a book-loving kid. The books: The Giving Tree (Shel Silverstein), The Polar Express (Chris Van Allsburg), The Runaway Bunny (Margaret Wise Brown), and Stellaluna (Janell Cannon).

I find it interesting to note that three of these titles were chosen by parents, and the fourth was chosen by one of my most well read friends. Two were chosen by my husband’s aunts, now the parents of teenagers, who picked out The Polar Express and Stellaluna because they had been favorites of the said-teenagers when they were younger. This tells me that others in Matthew’s life also value the importance of children’s literature.

I also find it interesting that three of these books are about the love between parent and child. (The Giving Tree being an allegory, The Runaway Bunny and Stellaluna being more literal.)

Matthew, of course, is too young to appreciate these books, or any books that he can’t throw or attempt to eat. So right now I’m getting the most joy out of them, and well, sometimes other emotions get thrown into the mix as well. See, all of these books are sad. In The Giving Tree, the boy keeps leaving the tree, who just wants the boy to be happy. Stellaluna, a baby fruit bat, loses her mother and becomes an orphan. The Polar Express deals with growing up and losing one’s faith (in Santa, but still). And The Runaway Bunny is sad from my new mom point of view -- the baby bunny insists on running away to have new and different experiences, and the mother bunny calmly insists she’ll follow wherever he goes. These all have happy endings, but I never realized, when I read these as a child (Stellaluna was published in 1993; I read it to kids I babysat), just how sad they are. Of course, I am reading them with new eyes, and I bring all my past experiences to the table when I read and interpret these stories -- experiences I lacked when I was four (or fourteen). But it’s interesting to note that the heartbreak I feel when Stellaluna loses her mother is of nearly the same intensity as the heartbreak I feel when I read, for example, the scene in The World According to Garp when Garp and Helen deal with the loss of their son Walter. Or when the Buendía family line comes to an end in One Hundred Years of Solitude. Or when Lyra and Will must be parted forever in The Amber Spyglass. It’s that same type of emotion, and from a book that I will someday be expected to read to my son without being reduced to a soggy mass of tears.

Re-reading these books also brings to mind the simpler times in my life when I first became acquainted with them, when I listened to them from the safety of my mother’s lap or my second grade desk. When I read them to other kids and my biggest stress was Algebra II. And sometimes I do wish I could go back to those times, because those were easy, careless days and I had a lot more time for reading back then. But on the other hand, if I were still a little kid I would never have read The World According to Garp or One Hundred Years of Solitude or The Amber Spyglass. Really, there is very little difference in the types of books I read for pleasure and the growing picture book collection that belongs to my son. Matthew’s books may have pictures, but they often tell the same stories and contain the same thematic elements as the books I choose to read. The books Matthew has received and will continue to receive are great, not only because they do what all good books do -- allow the reader to temporarily get lost in someone else’s world -- but because they are setting the foundation for a lifetime of such adventures.